A Sermon about Being a Church That Is Always Reforming

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Augustana Lutheran Church
30 October 2016 + Reformation Sunday
John 8.31-36



one-liners-jokes-e1431002792545There are more than a few one-liners peppered through the Bible—single verses plucked out for their pithy expression of some essential theological truth. Today we encounter one such one-liner: “[Then] you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The problem, of course, with one-liners, and this one in particular, is their tendency to lose all meaning and be reduced to some nice quote you might expect to see cross-stitched on a throw pillow.

These are words we hear every. year. year. after. year. on Reformation Sunday. And what fresh perspective could I possibly have to offer on this text, or on the history of our Lutheran tradition we commemorate today?

And on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in which our church body is stressing unity with the Roman Catholic Church, is more talk of a divisive historical event really what we want to be about?

Still, I do think we need to be about the business of reformation (lower case “r”). But it probably won’t look like the way we’ve always done it.


Phyllis Tickle, who up until her death just over a year ago spent her life writing on religion and spirituality, has argued that the church goes through a major reformation about once every five hundred years. If you’re doing the math in your head, that means we’re about due for another one.

I believe we’re living in the thick of it. Just last weekend, pastors, seminarians, and theologians from across the country descended on my seminary in Chicago for a conference born out of a movement taking hold of the ELCA. It’s a movement that challenges our assumptions about what it means to be Lutheran, which for too long has meant being part of a certain ethnic group or eating a certain type of food.

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Inaugural “Decolonize Lutheranism” gathering at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 22, 2016 (photo credit: @johnczhang via Twitter)

It’s a movement whose core ideology our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton writes about when she says: It’s not our culture and cuisine that define us. It’s our theology. That’s not to say Germanic or Scandinavian heritage shouldn’t be celebrated, but beer and brats and lutefisk and aebleskiver are not what it means to be Lutheran. Nor do people of German and Scandinavian descent have a monopoly on defining what it means.

And so in the midst of this movement, a modern-day reformation, we have the opportunity to reclaim Lutheranism apart from the cultural trappings that have obscured its original message of the radical nature of God’s grace.


Maybe, then, it might be more helpful to look less to the “Lutheran” part of our identity and more to “evangelical” part of our ELCA name. (I know, I know…reclaiming that word is another sermon entirely…) But at its core it simply means of or relating to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

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So we return to Jesus’s one-liner in John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

But we’re good Lutherans. We already know that we’ve been made free because Martin Luther said so.

The problem with the response the people give to Jesus in our gospel text is the same problem, I suspect, that happens with many Lutherans on Reformation Day: We appeal to our history, our status as a particular people, to suggest we have it right, and no one else. We’re not in need of freedom or reformation anymore.

But the church is always reforming. That’s the whole point of the Reformation. The moment we think we have nothing new to say is the moment we are most desperately in need of it.

Jesus’s response combats the notion that one’s ancestry or ethnicity or denominational affiliation determines one’s need for freedom. Instead, he says: Everyone who commits sin is in need of freedom. And as we hear in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that really does mean everyone.

Because sin, as Martin Luther himself has described it, is the condition of being curved in on one’s self.

I’ve jokingly referred to Reformation Day as “Lutheran Superiority Complex Day” because we have a tendency to ascribe such great value to this one day about this one historical event at this one point in time that we lose sight of why it was so radical.

It was so radical because it awakened a whole people to the freedom given to us in Christ. It’s a freedom unlike mere personal independence, but rather a freedom that sets us free from “sin” and the ways we become curved in on ourselves and become self-absorbed, both individually and institutionally. It’s a freedom that ever draws us into closer relationship with God and with one another. It’s a freedom that allows us to be the church that is always reforming and reimagining itself.


220px-a_time_for_burning_filmposterOn the last day of my first class in seminary, long before I ever heard about Augustana Lutheran Church, we watched this documentary, A Time for Burning. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) After it was over, I looked up this peculiar church in Omaha, Nebraska, to see if it was still around. Much to my surprise, the congregation that was once shook to its core by racial tension and controversy was now a vibrant Reconciling in Christ congregation with a woman pastor—a congregation I would come to learn, two years later, was intentionally looking for an LGBTQ+ intern.

And now here we are in the midst of A Time for Building, a capital campaign driven by a need to update our facilities for a wide variety of ministries that call Augustana home every day of the week.

This is what it means to be a church with its roots in the Reformation: that we can look fondly to our past and our heritage but without getting stuck in it, boldly and prophetically looking to the future, being daily set free by the gospel to love and serve the world and the God who made it.


It’s not often that I also post my chosen hymn of the day, but this is one of my favorites and (I think) best captures what the Reformation is all about:

The church of Christ, in ev’ry age
beset by change, but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live before they die.

Then let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ’s humanity.

For he alone, whose blood was shed,
can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread
and feed the starving multitude.

We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord;
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #729

A Sermon about the Call of the Holy Siri and Being Rerouted

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Grace Lutheran Church
1 May 2016 + Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 16.9-15; John 14.23-29



Have you ever been lost? No, I don’t mean lost in the spiritual, “Amazing Grace” sense of the word: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I mean lost like you’re on vacation, you have the map spread out across your dashboard in a futile attempt to determine if you really should’ve gotten off at exit 63, but you might as well be trying to read hieroglyphics.

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I can remember being lost on vacation once with my dad. We were on a hike through the Badlands of South Dakota in the blazing summer heat—a beautiful landscape, yes, but not so much when it’s a thousand degrees outside and you’ve lost track of your car. Though perhaps the greatest lesson learned that day is that when traveling with an ten-year-old maybe pack more than beer in the cooler.

In the age of the smartphone, getting lost has also gotten increasingly more snarky. If you know Siri, you know what I mean. Miss just one turn, and Siri’s nagging to “return to the route” starts to sound like a broken record. And her seemingly helpful attempts at rerouting you are nothing if not passive aggressive.

In our reading this morning from Acts, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit behaves a lot like a primitive Siri. To see what I mean, we actually need to back up a few verses.

At the onset of the chapter, things are going great. Paul and Silas recruit another travel reroutecompanion, Timothy, and the three of them go from town to town, visiting the churches. But then, two interesting things happen: First, we’re told they are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So they get rerouted through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. Then, they try to go to Bithynia, but similarly we read, “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Rerouted again, they finally wind up in Troas.

Now, those are a lot of place names. The geography itself is not necessarily important, but the sheer number of times their own divine GPS reroutes the trio is noteworthy.

It is at Troas that our reading picks up and where things get really interesting. During the night Paul has a vision. A “certain Macedonian man”—we’re not told exactly who—appears to him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he says to Paul. Rerouted yet again.

At this point, the narrator adds the crucial line: being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. What exactly the Holy Spirit is up to is yet to be made known, but this much is clear: The Holy Spirit is calling Paul, Silas, and Timothy to their missionary task of preaching the gospel—and certainly not where they first expected.

In Macedonia, predictably, the group seeks out the local “place of prayer.” What they encounter is a group of women. It’s easy enough to gloss over this detail in the 21st century, but for Paul and company to engage in conversation with a group of women is no small matter in the original context. Now add to an unexpected venue an unexpected group of people.

Predictably, after these women hear their preaching, one of them, Lydia, along with her family, is baptized. But here again, we should notice something unusual: Between the typical preaching and baptism, there’s no mention made of the Holy Spirit. Last week, we heard Peter’s report to the church at Jerusalem about his own vision while he was staying with Cornelius. In that story, before Cornelius and his family are baptized, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. In the case of Lydia, this detail is strangely missing.

Perhaps, as biblical scholar Mitzi Smith suggests, this implies that the Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life. Indeed, we as Lutherans confess that it is only 'The father the son and the holy spirit split.'through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can hear the Gospel and receive the gift of
faith. So it only makes sense that the Spirt would already be at work in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up.

Let me repeat that: The Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up. That simple statement bears repeating because it carries with it tremendous implications about what it means to be called to preach the Gospel.

If the Spirit is already at work in Lydia, then that means the Spirit is not unique to any one time, or place, or people. The Spirit moves where the Spirit moves, and she is always one step ahead of us.

Like Paul and company, we have certain ideas about where we might want to go and about what we think mission looks like. But like a giant “detour” sign, the Holy Spirit is always rerouting us. Sometimes, God simply has different plans in mind for what our mission looks like and calls us accordingly.


As I conclude my time among you as your seminary student intern, I too find myself called away, rerouted, if you will, to the next chapter of my ministry. Looking back on the past several months since I’ve been at Grace, I can see the many ways that this community preaches the good news. Certainly, the good news is preached in all the usual places: in bible study, in confirmation, from this pulpit. But then there are those unexpected places where the Spirit has called us to share the gospel: at a block party in August, at an Easter egg hunt for children and families across this neighborhood, in mutual dialogue with our Muslim friends just a couple weeks ago.

The Spirit is very clearly at work in this assembly, and not simply in the (expected) four walls of this sanctuary.

Each week, the Spirit moves through our liturgy and beyond. In gathering, the Spirit calls us together as the people of God. At the table, we remember the work of God’s Spirit in history and invoke that same Spirit to bless our feast and grace our table with divine presence. And nourished by Christ’s body and blood, the Spirit sends us out in mission to the world.

We can go into mission confidently because we know the Spirit precedes us. Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the “Advocate”—“Paraclete” in Greek, literally something like “the one who is on your side.” But he also promises them the gift of peace—a “profound and holistic sense of well-being,” rooted in the joy of the resurrection.

We hear it in today’s Gospel, and we heard it four weeks ago in the locked room with Thomas. With the gifts of peace and the Spirit, Jesus sends the disciples into mission. And with the same gifts, we too are sent.

As I leave this place for my internship in Omaha, the ministry of this congregation continues on. As the Spirit moves through this assembly gathered here, so too she moves in this neighborhood. Can you hear the man from Macedonia? “Come on over to Elmwood Park, to Chicago, to River Grove, to Oak Park, come on over and help us.” We have good news to share, friends. It starts here, but it continues in our Monday-through-Saturday lives, especially in the most unexpected places.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

That time I preached about the Reformation during Advent…

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)


[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]


When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?

We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.

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Jacob Preus

Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.

Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.

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John Tietjen

But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.


When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?

The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.

d84437ad811812321867d0b64ffc7efff8c5a434124475e335ecaa5d614ab147And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.

And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.

But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.

Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.

And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”


Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.

seminexThe logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.

The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.